Tough US rhetoric as Iran's nuclear intent remains unclear

Questions remain about the intent of Iran's nuclear programs, according to a critical new report by UN inspectors that details misleading claims and contradictory declarations from Tehran.

Iran said that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will soon be able to confirm Iran has no nuclear-weapon plans. Its report "shows Iran's nuclear case is approaching the end," though Iran expects to keep a uranium-enrichment capability, Hassan Rohani, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and top nuclear negotiator, said Wednesday.

But the results are likely to provide ammunition for critics - especially Washington, which charges that Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful atomic-energy program. The report presents a challenge to Iran, which has made clear it expects the IAEA to close a two-year inquiry into Iran's once-secret nuclear programs at a meeting June 14.

"I'm not terribly optimistic right now," says Michael Donovan, an Iran specialist at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "The last 10 months, we've seen clear signs the Iranians are trying to pull every rabbit out of the hat to avoid a thorough reckoning with the IAEA."

The confidential report, released to IAEA members Tuesday, and obtained by the Monitor, cited "good progress" in some cases, along with "changing or contradictory information." Inconsistencies include:

*Iran's acknowledgment that 4.19 lbs. of uranium hexafluoride, once declared lost, was in fact used for research.

• Key centrifuge parts for enriching uranium have been imported from another country - known to be Pakistan - despite Iranian denials.

• Some nuclear work has been carried out at military sites, contrary to Iran's declarations. IAEA access has been difficult.

• The source of trace amounts of 36 percent enriched uranium is unknown.

• Despite Iran's promise to the IAEA in February that it would cease all uranium-enrichment activities, inspectors found that, since then, 285 new rotors for P-1 centrifuges have been assembled.

"The jury is out on whether the program has been dedicated exclusively for peaceful purposes or if it has some military dimension," IAEA chief Mohamed El- Baradei said Tuesday. "We haven't seen concrete proof of a military program so it's premature to make a judgment on that."

President Mohamed Khatami warned Thursday about US "political pressure" on the IAEA. "We are sure that even if we respond to all the agency's demands, the US will still look for excuses," he said. "We will resume enrichment if necessary."

In a watershed decision supported by all of Iran's power centers, Iran last December signed the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which permits intrusive snap inspections. Tehran expects help in return for its atomic-energy program - a right codified in the NPT.

But tough US rhetoric hasn't eased. One result, analysts say, is that Iran may be deliberately slowing its cooperation. "The Americans have politicized this process so much," says Mohamed Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Some say Iran should keep its programs and "accept the pressure and the cost,'" says Mr. Semati. "The conservatives have pulled back a step, in terms of their agreement with the IAEA."

Iran handed over a 1,000-page dossier Friday that it said gives "all the information" the IAEA needs to clear up questions.

"What we're seeing now is ... skirmishing before the big showdown, which will come when Iran begins to enrich uranium with the centrifuges," says Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington. "Right now the Iran strategy is to give the IAEA the minimum necessary to keep it from condemning Iran as noncomplying."

"The US is trying to figure out how to get a united front against the Iranians," Milhollin adds.

Despite calls from some hard-liners to pull out of the NPT altogether, Tehran last October promised European leaders that Iran would work with the IAEA and sign the additional protocol. That deal was made with a "good cop, bad cop" routine, since the US ratcheted up rhetoric against Tehran soon after toppling Hussein.

"It was a credit to the Bush administration that they allowed it to work without trying to strong-arm the bureaucracy into a censure," says CDI's Donovan.

But tough US talk - including branding Iran part of an "axis of evil" - is taking a toll. Iran wants nuclear weapons "because of national prestige, and the fact that they are now surrounded by US military forces," says Donovan. "The Bush administration has played no small role in perpetuating the Iranian desire for a nuclear weapon with that kind of rhetoric."

Also, scant benefits of its deal with the West have been felt in Tehran, where the nuclear debate into a political hot potato.

Many ordinary Iranians say they want nuclear weapons, and would see giving up the nuclear fuel cycle as a sellout.

Semati says Iran's powerful conservatives aren't "interested in nuclear weapons right now.... [They want] to have the capability, to give them the chance to go nuclear if they have a threat to deter.... This is the ultimate aim of the government."

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